New Jan Lukas exhibition reflects huge breadth of great photographer’s work

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A significant retrospective of the work of the great Czech photographer Jan Lukas has just opened at Prague’s Art in Box gallery in connection with the centenary of his birth. Entitled People (1930–1995), it includes images ranging from the funerals of Masaryk and Beneš to prominent Czech émigrés in New York, where Lukas spent the last four decades of his life. I spoke to his daughter Helena Lukas and began by asking how hard it had been to whittle his large archive down to the hundred or so photographs on display.


“For this particular exhibit it was difficult. Even though my father’s works were diminished by so many negatives being thrown away when we left Czechoslovakia, there were still plenty left over that we took along or that were hidden with friends.

“And of course there was his new work – that did not get destroyed, so we have all his work from 1966 on.

“So yes, it was extremely difficult to eliminate anything. We could have been up to 200 but we managed to get it down to 117 or something like that. It was tough [laughs].”

What’s really striking is how much modern Czech history is captured here, from the interwar era, with Masaryk and Beneš, the war itself, Eisenhower in Prague, Louis Armstrong in Prague. Did he often discuss with you the amazing things that he had seen?

“Absolutely. He discussed everything with us children, his two daughters, from day one. So we were always aware of what he was working on.

“He would always tell us what was happening in the world and who was coming. Yes, he was always aware and definitely sharing the ideas that he was working on.”

Tell us about one of his pictures, Before the Transport, of a Jewish girl with a number around her neck. What is the story behind that photograph?

“This young girl was the daughter of our good friends. One morning they called my father up and said, We are about to be taken out, we are waiting for our transport, can you please take a photograph of us?

“So he ran over there and took two or three pictures. The one of the girl by herself is the most famous one – it was published quite a bit.

“The story is quite sad because the father did perish. But the daughter and mother managed to escape from a death march and made it all the way to Prague, where they were hiding until the end of the war.

“Then they emigrated to Canada and eventually lived in the United States. They stayed friends with us and helped us when we arrived in the United States.”

There a couple of great photos of Václav Havel in Central Park in the ‘60s. Did your father know Havel well?

“Yes, he knew him already in Prague, because my father photographed a lot of theatre productions and one of the theatres he covered was Divadlo Na zábradlí [Theatre on the Balustrade].

“That’s where Havel worked as a stage hand and then eventually had his first play The Garden Party produced there. My father photographed all of that and knew him.

“When Havel arrived in New York in 1968 he didn’t know anybody, so he just looked up my father’s number and called him up. That’s how he found somebody who would take care of him and take him around.

“My father introduced him to a lot of Czechs living in New York, like [Ferdinand] Peroutka, [Karel] Steinbach, Jiří Voskovec.

“So that’s how all these images came to be – he walked around with him.”

Was your father an active member of the Czech community in New York?

“Yes, he was. I believe he was a member of the SVU, the Society of Arts and Sciences. He was a member of that and he knew pretty much everybody. They would call him to photograph all kinds of functions. Definitely.”

Were all these people like Peroutka and Miloš Forman coming to your home?

“Oh yes. Festivities, birthdays, Christmases. Yes, very much so.”

How satisfying is it for you, coming here to Prague and having this quite major exhibition of your father’s work?

“It is something I dreamt about, so of course when any dream comes true it feels fantastic. The fact that it’s my father’s 100th birthday and that we managed with [gallery owner] Nadia Rovderová to make such an exhibition… it almost makes me cry!”

The exhibition runs at Art in Box on Prague’s Perlova St. until October 6.

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 20.08.2015

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